Acton Institute Powerblog

Why we should reject the erroneous idea that ‘error has no rights’

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A recent poll revealed that a near majority of Americans believe free speech should not be extended to extremist groups. Another poll found that a large number of citizens favor permitting the courts to fine news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate. (Almost half of Republicans (45 percent) would favor such a policy, and 35 percent say they simply haven’t heard enough to say.) And in Russia, the government has banned the religious group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

What is the common thread connecting all three? The idea that “error has no rights.”

This idea that “error has no rights” implies that since certain viewpoints are “dangerously in error” no one has the right to hold such views and the government therefore has a corresponding duty to suppress their expression.

Writing for National Review, Martin Nussbaum and John N. Thorpe explain why this totalitarian concept is not only un-American but antithetical to flourishing and freedom:

Underlying this [Russian] crackdown [on Jehovah’s Witnesses] is the idea that “error has no rights.” It has often (and, John Courtney Murray contends, wrongly) been labeled a medieval teaching of the Catholic Church. Whatever its source, the maxim has substantial appeal: Why should a state tolerate error? If civil unity matters, why risk infection from wrongheaded ideas? Many of the darkest moments in church–state relations drew strength from this view — from Calvin’s burning of Michael Servetus to the Inquisition, the beheadings of Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Legal rights should protect the good — we repeatedly hear. They ought not be asserted in the defense of evil. Fortunately, both church and state in the West generally reject that totalitarian idea.

The history of the American founding is filled with affirmations of the right to follow one’s conscience, even when one errs. Some of the most famous defenses of religious minorities come from people who elsewhere criticized their beliefs: Consider Thomas Jefferson, who made no secret of his contempt for organized religion, and his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802). “Religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God,” he wrote, and “he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.” The notion of a fundamental right to follow one’s conscience crystallized as early as 1776, with the drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. George Mason’s initial draft granted the “fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion.” James Madison, 26 years Mason’s junior, insisted on changing that grant to a guarantee that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” The distinction, while subtle, is essential: the free exercise of religion is a fundamental right. It is part of every person’s DNA — not a gift from the state.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Philosophical Actuary

    The double error is holding an incoherent view of rights that is disconnected from the common good (e.g. empowering errors to spread as easily and quickly as possible to harm as many people as possible) and stating that rejecting that incoherent view and upholding the common good can lead to nothing but totalitarianism. It is simply a distraction from the problem of the incoherent rights to begin with.

  • Philosophical Actuary

    Also be aware of the implicit hypocrisy that only medieval book burning totalitarian murders believe that the state or Church has the authority to suppress error. That error can be suppressed good and hard with making sure people know only that “sort of people” believe in that nonsense.
    The historical fact that authority can and is abused is not evidence that the authority doesn’t exist and should not be implemented. Abuses of authority can be punished, pretending that such authority doesn’t exist when it does and is actually implemented under the guise of it not existing only mean it will be used in an irrational and sociopathic way.